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GATEWAY LEAGUE FOOTBALL – La Mirada rallies from early hole to survive Norwalk’s double wing offense

October 18, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

The first 20 minutes of a pivotal Gateway League contest between La Mirada High and Norwalk High went as good as it could for the host Lancers and not so good for the Matadores. But in the blink of an eye, La Mirada recovered two fumbles late in the first half and turned them into touchdowns. 

Then senior Martin Aguilera returned the second half opening kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown as the Matadores scored 34 unanswered points to defeat the Lancers 34-13. Both teams were able to gain over 200 yards, but the difference was La Mirada’s defense making the timely stops on third or fourth downs and cashing in offensively.

“I think early in the game, they got after us a little bit,” said La Mirada first-year head coach Lucas Mealy. “They hit us in the mouth; it took us a little bit of time for us to kind of settle in. Obviously, that fumble recovery was huge. I think that’s a testament to our defense, our coaches and our players of not giving up on what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“We thought we were sitting pretty well,” said Norwalk head coach Ruben Guerrero. “We looked pretty good [but] those turnovers really killed us. It kind of stopped our momentum we had going. It was like a landslide there for a second; we couldn’t stop it.”

With the Lancers up 13-0, they drove to their 44-yard line where a fumble was recovered by sophomore cornerback Jordan Lauago at the La Mirada 48-yard line with 4:05 left in the opening half. That’s where it went 52 yards on seven plays and got on the board with a Lauago six-yard run. But on the ensuing kickoff, another fumble at the Norwalk 17-yard line led to Aguilera scoring on one play to tie the game with 45 seconds remaining in the half. 

The momentum would carry to the opening kickoff to the second half where Aguilera grabbed the ball with his right hand on one bounce at the 15-yard line, found a hole on the left side and raced down the near sideline as Norwalk senior defensive back Jacob Lopez couldn’t keep up. From that point on, La Mirada would score two more touchdowns on a combined nine plays while the Lancers were stymied on 17 second half plays.

“Our defense definitely set the tone,” said Mealy. “Obviously, coming out with the kickoff return for a touchdown was huge. We told the kids at halftime we weathered their storm. You could see as we were going in, our kids were up here ready to go. So, I think when we came out in the second half and we had that big play, I think from there it just took off.

“Our defense knew that if they kept listening to their coaches and do what the coaches told them to do, we could stop this offense,” he continued. “It’s definitely a good offense and they do a great job at Norwalk of running it. But we put ourselves in a position to be successful. The kids bought in, and once the defense gets stops, I think our offense has the confidence to go out there and do what they need to do.”

The game began in typical fashion for Norwalk (3-5, 0-3) with six running plays from senior running back Caleb Mitchell and junior running back Ezra Mueller covering 31 yards before Mitchell cashed in from 34 yards out to make it 7-0 four minutes in. Following a three and out, Norwalk got the ball at its 45-yard line and again, Mitchell and Mueller combined for 54 yards on nine plays, plus a three-yard gain from junior fullback Papo Lieataua to conclude the opening quarter. On the second play of the second quarter, Mueller scored on a two-yard run and then when senior defensive back Hector Cruz picked off sophomore quarterback Santino Garcia at the Norwalk 10-yard line, it looked like the Lancers would continue their momentum.

“We were doing what we do, we were having success doing it,” said Guerrero. “But when we’re moving, a turnover or a fumble is a killer to our offense. Anytime we move backwards with a penalty or a fumble or something, it just kills the momentum of the drives that we’re in. Tonight, I think they won the turnover battle in the game, and I think that’s what it might come down to.”

Norwalk would rush for 171 yards on 31 carries in the first half while the Matadores (3-5, 2-1) gained 118 yards on 17 plays. And after Aguilera’s kickoff return, Norwalk seemed to be gaining back some momentum. But senior quarterback Rylee Sosa overthrew a target on third and 11 from the Norwalk 43-yard line, the Lancers were forced to punt and would run eight plays the rest of the game.

After converting on four of five third down plays and its lone fourth down attempt in the first half, Norwalk was one of one of four on third down plays and was unsuccessful on a pair of fourth down plays after Aguilera’s kickoff return. Meanwhile, the Matadores would get an eight-yard run from Aguilera and a 21-yard run from Lauago for their last two touchdowns, the latter coming less than three minutes into the fourth quarter.

“They made some pretty good adjustment on us in the second half, and it took us awhile to figure that out,” said Guerrero. “That drive stalled because of some adjustments they had made. Then we had to go to a couple of other things to try to start moving the ball again. Once we figured something that we could use, it just kind of got away from us.”

Mitchell gained 134 yards on 22 carries and Mueller another 73 yards on 20 touches while Garcia’s passing paced Matadores as he was seven of 11 for 84 yards. Aguilera and Lauago rushed for 66 and 61 yards, respectively.

“I do think, ultimately, we are young,” said Mealy of his offense. “So, it’s going to take time. But, being the offensive coordinator, I want to score 1,000 points and have 1,000 yards and throw for 10 touchdowns and do all that stuff. But we have to do what it takes to win.”

This was the ninth straight win over Norwalk but the first time the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District rivals have met since the merger of the San Gabriel Valley League and Suburban League. Norwalk, by sharing for the Mid-Cities League last season, jumped to the Gateway League and it’s possible, the Lancers could remain in the Gateway League for next season.

“We know that they’ve done some things that are special,” said Mealy. “But it’s good to have these crosstown rivalries. It’s good to have these local teams playing each other. It’s something that we’re going to continue to try to do outside of league as well. But it’s nice to have them in league and to battle it out and show everybody what we can do.”

The win improved La Mirada’s playoff chances with two games remaining in the regular season. While the Matadores are tied with Mayfair High for third place, they have to travel to first place Warren High on Friday and close the season out at second place Downey High. Even if La Mirada finishes in fourth place and knowing that the top three teams get automatic playoff berths, it stood in the middle of a potential CIF-Sothern Section Division 9 playoff position, based off rankings from Calpreps.com. earlier in the week.

“It was huge,” said Mealy. “For the playoff picture, it’s huge, but it’s also huge for the simple standpoint of, like I said before, we’re young and we have to learn how to win games. I think tonight was a really big step in the right direction to learn how to do it.”

As for the matchup with Warren, the Bears are coming off a 28-21 win against Downey last Friday at SoFi Stadium, improving to 6-2 overall and remaining undefeated in three league contests. Quarterback Madden Iamaleava completed 23 of 28 passes for 236 yards and four touchdowns against the Vikings, three of which went to Jordan Ross. During the current winning streak, the Bears have scored 169 points while allowing 85 and their two losses have been to Serra (27-0) and Woodford County out of Versailles, KY (40-39). 

Iamaleava, one of the top quarterbacks in the CIF-SS, has passed for over 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions. He’s also completing nearly 66 percent of his passes. Three wide receivers have caught at least 28 of his passes, including Ross, Jace Brown and Jalen Ross, all of whom have combined for 1,548 yards and 16 touchdowns. On the ground, freshman Kelton Strickland leads Warren with just over 900 yards and has found the end zone seven times. The Bears, who defeated La Mirada 37-8 last season, are projected to be situated in Division 3 once the playoffs begin.

“We know Warren is a powerhouse,” said Mealy. “We know Downey is a powerhouse. We know how talented and well-coached they are. We’re going to take next week day by day, get after it in practice and do everything we can to get ourselves in position to be successful against them. We know now that we have a chance to control our own destiny to a certain extent.”

He added by saying the Matadores need to play the right style of football and to lock into what they’re doing, play mistake-free football, not have an interception in the end zone and can’t start the game off slow.

Norwalk will also be on the road for its final two games, starting with Dominguez High on Friday. The last time these two faced each other, the Lancers were on the south end of a 32-13 decision on Sept. 15, 2017. The previous season, Norwalk came away with a 21-13 victory and in the 2013 Southeast Division second round playoffs, the Lancers prevailed 19-7 as Rashaad Penny rushed for 123 yards on 27 carries and scored twice. 

Norwalk has lost three straight games and has scored 37 points during that stretch. Despite being tied with the Dons for fifth place, the Lancers were ranked 238th by Calpreps.com with 224 teams advancing to the playoffs. 

Dominguez is 5-3 overall and is coming off a 28-14 loss to Mayfair High last Friday. The Dons won the first five games of the season, scoring at least 34 points each time. But in the three league setbacks, Dominguez has scored 14 points against La Mirada, Downey and Mayfair.

“After facing Warren and Downey, we thought that level of competition would have put us in a good light for tonight,” said Guerrero. “And it did for the first quarter. But that’s not a complete game. We have to play a complete game and I think if we put a complete game together, maybe the outcome is a little bit different. But we felt really good about tonight; we felt really good about our chances and our opportunities to win tonight. We kind of let those get away from us with those turnovers.”

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